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Name Controversy Not Just Skin Deep

Name Controversy Not Just Skin Deep

Name Controversy Not Just Skin Deep

The Washington Redskins, a longstanding National Football League team, faces pressure to change its name by parties as disparate as President Barack Obama, the Oneida Indian Nation and shock jock Howard Stern.

The president said that if he was the owner of the team, he would change the name.

The Oneidas are running radio ads that say “we should all be able to agree that racial slurs are unacceptable, and they shouldn’t be used to market this country’s capital city.”

Said Stern in a way only he can: “It’s so offensive.  And that logo is that big Redskin.  It’s like you had the Washington N-Words and you had Sambo with his watermelon.  Just change the [expletive] name.  Home of the free, land of the brave, meanwhile we came over to this country, stole their land…and killed them all.  So give them an [expletive] bone and change the name already.”

Redskins’ billionaire owner Daniel Snyder, who purchased the team more than a decade ago, faces his biggest challenge to date, far eclipsing any coaching or quarterbacking controversy.  Yet despite the political and public relations pressure, Snyder has held fast that he won’t change the name of the team.  He recently published a letter to fans explaining his position but, curiously, not asking for their feedback.

A friend asked my opinion of the controversy and what I would advise if hired by Snyder and the team.  Here goes:

The name is one that is considered offensive by many but in a way that the names of other pro teams are not.   The Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Chiefs, for example, aren’t under a similar siege.  The Redskins name is, in fact, closer to derogatory names that have been changed in recent memory.  A few years ago, St. Johns University changed its team name from the Redmen to the Red Storm, and Syracuse University recently changed its name from the Orangemen to the Orange.  (Both schools note that the changes were part of an effort to be gender neutral with their names.)

The Redskins face a tough predicament.  The team has surveyed Native Americans, and the results suggest that many aren’t offended by the name.  In fact, several members of the aforementioned Oneida Nation have even said they are fans of the football team.

But the name sure sounds racist to the naked ear, and keeping it promotes the normalization of an epithet.

When it comes to situations like this, I like to take a hard look at the public relations upside versus the downside.  In many instances, the answer becomes crystal clear.

If the team can sway the opposition, the upside is that it gets to keep its name, push-back the controversy in the short term and move-on to focus on football.  The downside will be that the name issue will likely loom for years to come.  It probably doesn’t go away altogether.

If the team decides to change the name, the upside is that the controversy will be over for good, end of story.  The downside is that the team has to handle the PR defeat and go through a challenging and expensive rebranding effort.

But is the decision that easy to place into context?  I venture that this is not just a matter of dollars and cents for the NFL franchise.

Owner Snyder has largely taken on the villain role in this controversy.  Does his tenacious stance to keep the name make him a racist?  Nobody has suggested it yet and I don’t think he is, but it’s not an outrageous allegation.  Aside from a public relations defeat and having to write a big check for new marketing expenses, what’s his downside risk?  Here’s where it gets tricky.

One of Snyder’s key business interests is Dick Clark Productions, which produces iconic televisions shows including the “Golden Globe Awards,” “American Music Awards,” “Academy of Country Music Awards” and “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.”

These are incredibly valuable brands.  If advising Snyder, I would be concerned about backlash filtering its way to these profit producing, high-profile telecasts.

What if the team doesn’t change the name and Justin Timberlake or Rihanna decides not to attend the AMAs in protest?  How much fuel is added to the fire if Tom Hanks or Sandra Bullock appears on “The Daily Show,” for example, and says they won’t accept a Golden Globe from an organization owned by Snyder.  Imagine Blake Shelton or Carrie Underwood boycotting the country music awards?  (On the plus side, I can’t imagine the syrupy Seacrest taking a stance on anything.)  None of these situations are that far-fetched, and any one of them would launch the controversy into the stratosphere of public awareness and social media debate.  At that point the pressure would reach such heights that the name change would be inevitable.

Given that the Redskins name controversy has the potential to infiltrate his other business interests and do harm beyond the gridiron, I think the decision to change the name becomes much clearer and easier to make.  The downside risks prevail.   As a business executive first and a football team owner second, my guess is that Snyder will eventually follow my recommendation and change the name.

What do you think?



author: John P. David

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